Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.


Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions

“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.

One of them was Kilgore Trout. He was a nobody at the time, and he supposed his life was over. He was mistaken. As a consequence of the meeting, he became one of the most beloved and respected human beings in history.

The man he met was an automobile dealer, a Pontiac dealer named Dwayne Hoover. Dwayne Hoover was on the brink of going insane.”

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Ayn Rand: serious and intense.
Kurt Vonnegut: irreverent, off the wall, fun, and yes, serious.

Ayn Rand’s approach was more intellectual and might leave the reader emotionally drained.
Kurt Vonnegut aimed for the gut, but the ride was so much fun, you didn’t mind the punch to the stomach.

“This is the tale of…”

A tale, not a story. Relax, dear reader, I’m just telling you a tale. No need to get uptight. Just two skinny, lonesome, old white men. They’re everywhere, these old white men. Yes, the planet is dying, but this is just a tale, remember?

And Kilgore Trout. How can you be a serious person if your name is Kilgore Trout? Such an unassuming nobody. Ok, so maybe he became one of the most beloved and respected persons — no, not just a person, a representative of the entire species we call human — in history. Not a mere fifteen minutes of fame, mind you. All of history.

The other character in this little tale is Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer. A wheeler dealer. But lest you think that this tale is going to get serious, one other little fact: Poor Dwayne is about to go bonkers.

Of course none of this really happened. It’s just an interesting little tale I made up, Vonnegut seems to be saying. Nothing to fear. Leave your intellect at the door. It’s just a silly little tale.

See? You didn’t even notice the sock to the gut.




This is an easy read, and it’s interesting.

I’m reading and writing and thinking today.  Here’s what’s on my mind:

Much is made of the need to hook the reader with the first line.  Consider these first lines from well-respected authors.

“At twenty-four the ambassador’s daughter slept badly through the warm, unsurprising nights.”

“All this happened, more or less.”

“On the first day of my teaching career, I was almost fired for eating the sandwich of a high school boy.”

Any of these hook you?

The first one is from Salman Rushdie (or Sal Bass, as he was known on Seinfeld). The book is Shalimar the Clown.  I wasn’t all that knocked out by the opening line.  The rest of the book follows the same tone.

The second is from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.  This is an oft-quoted example of a good first line, but really, the first paragraph is important for the hook.  Here it is:

“All of this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.  One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.  Another guy I  knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.  And so on.  I’ve changed all the names.”

Not only do you get a sense of what the book is all about, you get a big dose of that acerbic Vonnegut voice.

The third “first line” is by Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who gave us Angela’s Ashes.  This is from his later memoir, Teacher Man. What a story-teller, McCourt was.  He gets right into it, when, on his first day as a New York school teacher in 1958, Petey throws his baloney sandwich at Andy.  The first line tells you what happens to the sandwich, but you need to have McCourt tell you the whole story. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to have over for dinner.  Well, not now, with him being dead and all.  But you know what I mean.

Chapter 17 of Teacher Man ends with:

“Someone calls, Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book.”

Here’s Chapter 18, the last chapter of the book, in its entirety:

“I’ll try.”

We should talk about endings some day.  They’re probably more important than beginnings.  Kind of a chicken and egg conundrum.

That is all. Go back to your ball game or cooking show or beach (if you’re lucky enough to live in southern California).

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